If pizza ever had a soul mate, it would surely be gelato. Both have ancient roots in Italy, and both are comfort foods.
 
The one glaring difference: pizza went mainstream in America decades ago, while gelato is just starting to make icy inroads. Gelato came to the United States for the first time around 1800, but it never found solid footing until the late 1970s. Happy with high-quality ice cream, Americans didn't see the need to try the Italian version.
 
"But today, the U.S. market is ready to accept and understand gelato," said Marco Casol, general manager of Charlotte, N.C.-based PreGel USA. "People travel a lot more today, and many have been to Europe and have tried gelato. In addition, people are more careful about what they eat. Gelato meets the needs of modern society because it is natural, because it is healthful."
 
It's fair to call gelato Italian ice cream, but there are differences. Not only is gelato lower in fat, it's commonly an all-natural food. It's also intensely flavored and denser than ice cream due to the low speed of the dasher, the tool that blends the ingredients.
 
"The low amount of air makes the product very creamy and it increases the fl avor perception," said Casol. "Gelato is also made fresh onsite. That's what has made it so popular over the world. You make it, you sell it. The freshness is unbeatable: the creaminess, the smoothness."
 
Gelato gains traction
 
In Italy, gelato flavors refl ect the regions from which they come. Milk-based gelato comes from the north, where it is flavored with creams, chocolate and hazelnut. Water-based gelato flavored with fruit, known as sorbeto, is popular in the south. That American taste buds are warming up to gelato is proven in recent gelato chain startups, such as Dallas-based Paciugo Gelato, founded in 2000 and now operating 25 units. (Eight additional units are scheduled to open in 2007.)
 
Founded by Turin, Italy, transplant Ugo Ginatta, Paciugo has 200 recipes using all-natural gelati and dairy-free and fat-free sorbets. The chain has made some of its offerings highly healthful with the use of Splenda as a sugar replacement, and making dairy-free soy gelati.
 
"We're seeing a lot more interest in gelato now, although it's been a little slow coming on," said John Kappus, national account sales manager for The Kappus Company, distributors of equipment manufacturer Taylor, which produces gelato and ice cream batch freezers. "People are learning what it is in places like New York, Miami, Southern California, Texas. You're seeing a lot more gelaterias popping up."
 
Jan Horsfall is typical of an American-born entrepreneur with a vision for finding gold in gelato. Horsfall is founder and CEO of Gelazzi, a gelato store he opened in Denver in November 2004. He visited Italy and consulted with gelato pros to return with an expansion plan fueled by franchising. The second Gelazzi opened in August 2006, and Horsfall hopes to have 50 locations in the ground by 2009, according to an interview in The Denver Business Journal.
 
"People are also opening gelato counters as an add-on business in Italian restaurants, pastry shops, coffee shops," Kappus said. "And pizzerias, too, are a perfect fit, where pizza makers take a lot of pride in the freshest ingredients and handmade dough. Gelato is right in line with those values."
 

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